An Introduction to Zoroastrianism: Continuity and Change by Dr. Shernaz Cama


July 11, 2023

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Our dear friend and mentor Dr. Shernaz Cama presents a 6 part series that speaks about the Zoroastrians and the Parsis. Dr. Cama is the founder of the PARZOR Project and also the founding co-chair of the Zoroastrian Return To Roots Program.

This Lecture Series is presented by Dr. Shernaz Cama at Lady Sri Ram College, University of Delhi. Read more about her research here.

The series is organized by The Swedish South Asian Studies Network at Lund University


Part 1: Introduction

About the lecture

Once the state religion of a massive empire of the ancient world, Zoroastrianism has been reduced to a handful of refugees & today is one of the smallest minority religious cultures in the world with about 50,000 followers in the Indian Sub-Continent, around 25,000 left in the Iranian homelands and the rest in diasporas across the world.

In this segment, Dr. Shernaz Cama gives a brief introduction to one of the oldest revealed religions following one God–Ahura Mazda, and explains why there is a need to study Zoroastrianism as a faith in today’s divisive world.

Part 2: Symbols, Concepts & Rituals

About the lecture

Central to the faith of Zoroastrianism is its acceptance of polarity in the universe. As stated by Dr. Shernaz Cama, the prophet Zarathustra’s seemingly existential questions about life and death, good and evil, light and darkness, is what makes him closer to human. It is also because of these questions that these contradictions become a central part of the faith itself. Thus, if Ahura Mazda dwells in the Anaghra Raochao/ Aneran, Abode of Endless Light there are opposing forces in the Universe like the Spenta Mainyu, ‘the beneficent spirit’ and Angra Mainyu, ‘the spirit of negation & hate’, following the concept of polarity in Zoroastrianism.

In this segment, Dr. Shernaz Cama gives an overview of the various rituals, myths, practices, and symbols of the faith that are closely intertwined within this larger concept of polarity.

Part 3: History of the Persian Empire

About the lecture

Originating between 1800-1600 B.C.E. in present-day Iran, the history of Zoroastrianism is closely linked with the histories of the successive dynasties that have come and gone in ancient Babylon to medieval Persia. The Shah Nameh, or, the Book of Kings as recorded by Persian poet Firdausi in the 10th century C.E. places the Achaemenian Persians as the dynasty that is regarded as the first historic Zoroastrian dynasty. Enjoying a central position as the state-religion till the 7th century C.E., Zoroastrianism was gradually pushed to the margins during the Islamic invasions in later decades, and, as explained by Dr Cama, became a reason for the loss of manuscripts and tangible heritage of Zoroastrians of Iran.

In this segment, a brief overview of the history of the Persian empire helps situate the geography and history of the faith itself.

Part 4: The Parsis in India

About the lecture

The earliest texts that record the entry of Parsis in India dates to around 1600 C.E. by Bahman Kaikobad, who recorded a text detailing the conditions imposed by the Jadav Mandaliks, the rulers of small regions in western India during the 7th-9th century when Parsis fled their homeland after the Sassanian defeat. Since they came from what was then known in India as Pars, they became Parsis.

Gradually, the Parsi community in these regions grew in number, and Navsari became a center of community activity where the Vadi Dar-e-Meher was built in in 1142 C.E. However, the influence of Parsis is much more visible in later centuries, when the Mughal emperor Akbar was drawn to the faith due to his Persian lineage, and ordered that a fire be kept burning constantly at his court while the Persian calendar became the Mughal calendar.

During the colonial period, Parsis became affluent businessmen working in the ship-making and cotton-textile industries, setting up one of the first mills in India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To this day, Parsis are indulged in various forms of trading activities within and outside India.

Part 5: The Parsis in India: Growing Influences

About the lecture

In this segment, Dr.. Shernaz Cama takes forward the discussion on Parsis in India and talks about their contribution to the nation and society in great detail. Be it the Tatas or Godrejs who have been stalwarts in business and industry, or scientists like Dr. Homi Bhabha, Parsis have had a long-lasting effect on the fabric of India’s economy, society, and politics.

According to Dr. Cama, in their varied contributions to the nation one can see the strong determination to follow the Zoroastrian motto, Humata, Hukata, Huvarashta–good thoughts, good words, and good action.

Part 6: The Diaspora & New Beginnings

About the lecture

A religion that has always faced the brunt of history in either being exiled or the community forced to seek asylum elsewhere, Zoroastrianism has only recently become known today due to the endeavors of leaders within this small community as mentioned in the previous segment.

However, even after centuries of existence, the Zoroastrian population across the world faces an existential crisis today, as most of the practitioners of the faith live in small diasporic communities scattered around the world.

Talking about these and other issues that exist within the faith today, Dr. Cama raises the important question of if and how the faith will survive in modern times, and tries to engage with the issues that the religion faces today.